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  At Last, an Uptown Crowd in a Downtown Arena

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, December 3, 1997; Page B1

At long last, it felt like it always does in Chicago and New York and Seattle and the other great NBA cities on Game Night. It crackled. It bubbled like it never had for a pro basketball game in Washington, D.C. People dressed to the nines, they arrived early, they packed the restaurants and bars, and stood around gawking to see and be seen. There was a national TV audience, the president of the United States and, goodness sakes, genuine passion and excitement.

David Stern, the NBA commissioner, smiled like you've never seen as he stood in Abe Pollin's suite two hours before the game, surveying a sight he wasn't certain he'd ever see.

"This is the one city that could profit greatly from this arena being downtown," Stern said. "Sometimes, you just need a catalyst. There aren't that many places where a local resident, the president, can go a few blocks and catch a game."

It was like the new NBA, the one that has lived in L.A. and Boston and Salt Lake City these past 15 years, finally arrived here. An hour before the arena even officially opened, my friend, Bryan Burwell, a Washingtonian and TNT analyst, called his mother on the phone and said, "Mom, mom ... it's right across the street from the old Hecht Company store!"

Another friend, Neville Waters, who is also a Washingtonian and a sports marketing executive, walked the entire way around the building and kept saying: "You don't understand. There are no words for this. Do you know what this means to Washington?"

Stern, Burwell and Waters are 40 or older. They're not wide-eyed innocents. For people who traveled the NBA since the Bird-Magic renaissance, we've known how it could feel and we've known it hasn't felt that way here. A catalyst was needed. Stern was right.

Maybe a catalyst to jump-start its No. 1 tenant, too. Let's face it, the Wizards didn't want to be in US Airways Arena any more than the rest of us. Which means, not at all. Maybe they can feel at home in MCI Center the way this group of players never felt in Landover. It simply can't be a coincidence that after five straight losses in the old place, the Wizards came out and convincingly outplayed a Seattle team some think will challenge the Lakers for supremacy in the Western Conference.

"We had a sense of urgency," Rod Strickland reported afterward. "We had to get things started right."

Asked how he felt about having to play the first five home games in Landover, Strickland said candidly: "I want to help them knock it down. It was tough. I'm happy to get out of there. I don't care what anybody says, when you're not playing well at home and then your own fans start to boo, you start thinking a little too much."

You know one of the most encouraging things for the home team? No rooting for the visiting team. Okay, they weren't particularly loud or inspired and there was a lot of milling around on the concourses. Any crowd that would rather do the wave than watch the game has people who should be denied a seat in the future. But I'm not about to get picky over anything that happened on one of the finest sports and civic nights in Washington in many, many years.

About three hours before the game, as the Secret Service prepared for the arrival of President Clinton and Pollin greeted guests as if they were stepping into his living room, one of the most loyal employees in Bullets-Wizards history — Jack of Every Imaginable Trade Dolph Sand — thought back to his first season with the Bullets, which was their last at Baltimore Civic Arena.

"No one ever thought about any of this, not any aspect," Sand said. "Not all the high-tech equipment; a computer back then [1972] took up an entire room. When we moved into Capital Centre [1973], the sky suites were incredible. You had your own bar and total privacy. That, though it may be difficult to believe now, was the cutting edge. The first week, if my memory serves me, we had The Who, the Globetrotters, Seattle in the Bullets' opener, and the Allman Brothers.

"Every single thing that was at Capital Centre seems to have been made better here. Capital Centre was actually a radical difference," he continued. "This is a dramatic improvement on every single item."

Pollin made sure the president found out first-hand what an adult playground MCI is. Clinton was like a little kid playing the interactive sports upstairs inside MCI National Sports Gallery.

"He shot the puck, he pitched," Pollin said. "He even played Chris Webber in the game of H-O-R-S-E [on a 10-foot video screen] and hit his first three shots. He loved every minute. He had a great time."

And of course, Pollin had a great time. Probably the best day, as it relates to his sports franchises, that he's had since the Bullets won the NBA title almost 20 years ago.

The locker room had virtually emptied and Pollin sat on a seat, the adrenaline finally subsiding.

"I woke up at 4:45 this morning," he said. "And I took the Metro down to the arena. I keep hearing how safe and easy it is but I wanted to find out for myself. It took 15 minutes from Bethesda. Then, the sun came out and after all the bad weather we've been having. I said, 'The Good Lord is shining down on me.'

"Then tonight, I was walking around and citizens I've never met kept saying, 'Thank you, Abe, for doing this for Washington, D.C.' Somebody held up a sign that said, 'We Love You, Abe' and I've never seen anything like that before. I told the president, 'Mr. President, we've never lost with the Bullets, Wizards, or Georgetown when you've been here. You've got to quit your day job. And he told me he'll try to make it more often. ... The whole evening there was just a thrill in the air. The city really will come to this building. Wasn't it exciting?"

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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